January 25th is “Burns Night,” when the Scottish diaspora (and those of us who like Scotland) celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns. Burns was ahead of his time, as a democrat, feminist, humanist, and linguist. One of his most often quoted lines is, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men/Gang aft agley.” (Or oft go awry, in the Anglicized version).
You can read the whole poem, To a Mouse, but the jist of it is: Burns, who was a farmer, was out plowing a field under one autumn. In the course of his efforts, he unearthed the burrow of a field mouse. Mrs. Mouse had worked long and hard to make a safe, snug winter haven for the Mouse Family, then along comes Robert, trying to keep his family safe and snug, and it’s disaster for the Mouses.
Burns was writing about what the conflict resolution professionals call “unintended consequences.” No matter how many what-ifs you think through, no matter how carefully you craft an agreement, chances are, something unforeseen will crop up, and the perfect solution will result in more problems.
This is why, in the case of any conflict of substance, imposing solutions from outside the situation generally fails in the long run. At the first opportunity, those who don’t like the decision will point to these unintended consequences as proof everlasting that the decision was wrong (even if it was objectively brilliant). Decisions made with the input of those affected tend to hold up longer, which is why judges always, always try to have parents rather than the court come up with the schedule in a custody case.
In a juvenile justice setting, a restorative justice approach makes the victim and the offender, along with their support systems, come up with the punishment and the reparation. Not surprisingly, offenders who’ve been through an RJ process have a much lower recidivism rate than in the traditional system. Victims report that RJ results in more resolution of trauma symptoms, and better attention to the damages they suffered as a result of the crime.
Beside durability, the other benefit of participatory problem-solving is that by thrashing through an issue together, learning to see the person behind the position, parties in a sticky situation usually develop some trust and respect. This can save the day when those unintended consequences pop up, as they invariably do.
Unintended consequences can be positive. I started taking riding lessons as an adult because I was badly depressed, and that was one physical activity I knew I’d get myself out of bed to pursue. Unintended consequences of that solution included making some lifelong friends, developing a big area of common ground with my daughter, and learning how to manage a large, complex competition without losing my cool.
Conflict really can be an opportunity. Have you ever been faced with unintended consequences–positive or negative? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The MacGregor’s Lady (and please consider stopping by our post-Burns Night Facebook party on Thursday evening).